Icon Aircraft: Flying into the Future

 - November 6, 2019, 4:07 PM
Icon A5s at the company headquarters at Nut Tree Airport in Vacaville, California. (Photo: Matt Thurber)

Icon Aircraft has a relatively short history in the general aviation industry. The company launched, as many aircraft manufacturers do, with promises of low-cost innovation that later bowed to the realities of high certification and production costs. Contrary to the predictions of many naysayers, however, the company is still in business, it is producing airplanes—the Icon A5 amphibious light sport aircraft—and it is focused on extracting maximum efficiency from its production lines while still producing a high-quality recreational aircraft that people want to buy.

Quality costs money, however, and it was likely with some reluctance two years ago that Icon raised the price of the fully equipped A5 to $389,000, a number that probably seemed shocking to those who have followed the program from the beginning.

Icon’s mission has been consistent since the company was founded in 2006 by Kirk Hawkins and Steen Strand: to encourage more people to become pilots in aircraft that are much more fun to fly and more modern and safe compared to traditional general aviation airplanes. Or as Icon puts it: “to accelerate the democratization of personal flight and 3-D mobility. Icon creates consumer-friendly, safe, technologically advanced aircraft that make the adventure of flying more accessible to mainstream consumers.” The founding came shortly after the FAA instituted new regulations for Light Sport Aircraft (LSA), which involve a consensus-standard certification process, weight and speed restrictions, and lower pilot certification requirements.

It is interesting to view an early video where Hawkins explains the Icon design philosophy and compares that to the resulting airplane. Engineering, especially in aviation, is all about managing constraints, and there were many that Icon faced as the project progressed, including the need to seek an exemption from the LSA regulations on maximum takeoff weight; the A5’s mtow is 1,510 pounds, 80 pounds more than the current regulatory limit for amphibians, although still less than the 1,680 pounds allowed by the exemption. Another constraint was money; some may think that designing and building an LSA is easy because of the consensus standards that replace Part 23 certification. But a complex machine with foldable wings that is going to fly through the air, land on water and runways, and help keep its occupants safe is no small design matter. In Icon’s case, the design itself had to be about more than just putting wings and an engine on a boat hull. In an early FORA.tv video of a presentation given at design firm Ideo, where Strand worked before founding Icon, Hawkins outlined the Icon philosophy.

“We believe that aviation and what it represents is innate in many of us, and humans have been dreaming about flying for a long time,” he explained. “It’s a fascination that we have with freedom, with fun, and with adventure.” Unfortunately, he added, aviation and its regulators turned flying into a pure transportation function. “You can see we’re moving away from the fundamental human aspiration of flying,” he said. Pointing to a picture of a Cessna 172, he added, “It’s all about transportation. It’s a secure, gated airport environment that’s very restrictive. This airplane is a 30-year-old aluminum can designed for transportation, which is effective, but hardly is inspirational to anybody who wants to dream of aviation.”

At the same time, Icon’s goal was to make flying safer, and this became a fundamental aspect of the A5, its spin-resistant design. While the A5 does stall, the design goal dictates what happens to make it safer prior to and in a stall: first is that it be resistant to spinning, second that it be controllable while in a stall, and third that it have a slow descent rate during a power-off full stall that would still allow a survivable crash.

Icon A5
Icon A5s being prepared for delivery to their new owners at the company's Vacaville, California, headquarters. (Photo: Matt Thurber)

Early Promise

At its public unveiling June 11, 2008, the A5’s projected price was $139,000, and Icon promised that deliveries would begin in 2011. By 2015, when deliveries finally began, the price had climbed to $247,000 for the fully equipped version (the only version that has ever been available) with a ballistic parachute, removable side windows, LED lights, and other premium features.

As it turns out, designing and manufacturing a relatively sophisticated amphibious LSA would end up being far more complex and costly than the founders had anticipated.

The first production Icon A5 was delivered at the EAA AirVenture show in 2015, shortly after the model passed its FAA audit. At the time, Icon had a backlog of more than 2,000 orders, likely spurred by a low deposit amount of $5,000, which occasionally dropped lower as an incentive to sign up more buyers.

Icon’s current president Thomas Wieners joined the company late in the summer of 2015 as vice president of manufacturing. While Icon had hired engineers and consultants with experience in high-volume composite manufacturing, the original design was not optimized for manufacture, according to Wieners. Icon had recently moved into its new headquarters in Vacaville, California, adjacent to Nut Tree Airport, and it was time to begin filling those many orders.

Thomas Wieners
Icon Aircraft president Thomas Wieners took on the challenge of building a modern and efficient aircraft manufacturing system when he joined the company in 2015. (Photo: Matt Thurber)

“The mandate was, ‘We've developed a strong airplane,” Wieners, who is now Icon’s president, explained. “'They're prototypes, and now it's time to bring it into serial production. Can you help us do it?' That's the role I was hired for. The big challenge is how to get from a stunning aircraft to state of the art manufacturing. We had to build the machine to build the machine. It was more challenging than I thought it would be.”

One of Icon’s key moves was to manufacture composite parts and components at a new factory in Mexico. Icon had contracted with Cirrus Aircraft and two other suppliers to build its first airframe structural components, but this proved too costly, given the complexity of manufacturing the A5.

“We realized there are so many labor hours involved that we were never going to be able to afford building these parts in the U.S.,” he said. “We wanted to own that core competency. We believe that carbon-fiber manufacturing is something we should do in-house; we believe it’s the soul of the airplane.”

Icon Aircraft
Employees receive training for six months to a year to learn how to build carbon-fiber composite parts at the Icon Composites Technology in Tijuana, Mexico. (Photo: Matt Thurber)

Mexico Manufacturing

The 300,000-sq-ft Icon Composite Technologies center of excellence for serial carbon-fiber manufacturing opened in Tijuana in late 2016. The advantage of Tijuana, compared to other aerospace-manufacturing centers in Mexico, is that it is close to San Diego, simplifying transportation of finished materials to the U.S. It is also easier to attract talent, such as engineers who are U.S. citizens and want to live in the San Diego area and commute to Tijuana.

The Tijuana facility is now running a mature quality management system, according to Wieners, with lean manufacturing methodologies employed both in the work done by highly trained Mexican employees and sophisticated machinery to aid composites layout and production. This includes five-axis CNC routers, Virtek laser-alignment machines, FaroArm 3D measurement and inspection systems, two 65-foot-long gas-fired ovens, an autoclave, and more. The process is called the Icon Production System. “We focus on lean, high-quality efficiency,” he said.

Icon Aircraft
After manufacture, composites parts are quality checked to ensure precision. (Photo: Matt Thurber)

Employees receive above-average benefits, and the working conditions are far better than typical Tijuana-area jobs, with a clean, air-conditioned workspace, free transportation and hot lunch, and comprehensive training, including cross-training for different tasks.

During a visit to the Tijuana center in September, accompanied by vice president of manufacturing Veronica Rubio, AIN saw parts being cured for A5 Serial Number 136. The Tijuana composites experts build the 378 individual parts that make an A5 and put them together into 70 subassemblies that are shipped to Vacaville for final assembly. Much of the work is hand-layup of precision-cut composite materials; the wing spar alone has 120 plies.

Icon Aircraft
The A5 composite wing almost ready to be closed up at the Tijuana, Mexico Icon Composites Technology facility. (Photo: Matt Thurber)

To help employees understand what they are building, a production A5 in a corner of the factory highlights the company’s current product. During family days, visitors get to climb into the A5’s cockpit, and there is always a long line waiting for the opportunity. “They’re proud and excited about what they’re doing,” said Wieners.

Icon Aircraft
A production A5 sits in a corner of the Icon Composites Technology facility in Tijuana, Mexico, so employees can see what they are manufacturing. (Photo: Matt Thurber)

The original plan for the Vacaville facility was to manufacture composites in one of the two buildings that Icon constructed, but now just one building is in use for final assembly, paint, and maintenance, while the other one is leased out.

All arriving components are carefully inspected before going into inventory, where they quickly move to the final assembly line or subassembly stations. Work instructions are available on iPads at each station, and Icon’s enterprise resource planning software keeps the instructions up to date. There are 190 operations done at Vacaville, and each is followed by a quality control inspection. All movement of parts and use of materials is tracked automatically so refills can be timed appropriately.

This system is far more sophisticated than what Wieners and his team faced when he took over manufacturing. At the time, there were no work instructions nor specified tools, just a booklet of engineering drawings. Wieners admitted that although he was attracted by Icon’s vision of bringing more people into aviation with the exciting A5, “I knew that it was going to be tough and that manufacturability was not priority number one, but instead, the flight characteristics and the aesthetic stuff [were the focus].” Although he did plenty of due diligence before accepting the job, he said, “I underestimated how complicated it was going to be to bring this airplane into serial production. There have been a few changes, but basically it's the airplane as-developed, which means that we didn't bring manufacturability into this plane. We found a way how to manufacture it.”

Rightsizing

More recently, Wieners had to make some tough decisions about sizing the company to match the actual demand for the A5 at its new $389,000 price tag. The backlog is likely not the peak of 2,000-plus airplanes, but now Icon isn’t giving a precise number, after having built its first 100 airplanes (as of July 22). “What we're trying to do is match the production schedule with the demand side,” he said. “A healthy backlog for us is three to six months.” This year, he expects to produce 50 A5s and next year around 100, although production could increase if demand grows.

Icon Aircraft
This fuselage assembly is nearly ready to be shipped from Mexico to Vacaville, California, for final assembly. (Photo: Matt Thuber)

“Those are less aggressive numbers than we might have disclosed in the past,” he acknowledged. “The issue with us being that aggressive is some of the attitude I want to change. I don't want to say, ‘There is [demand for] 500 in two years’ because I don't think there is. And if there is, it's a good problem to have. That doesn't mean we don't want it. For me, that moment of truth is we’ve got to use that opportunity to accept the reality check and stop over-promising and under-delivering, but instead surprise with performance, with quality, and with matching the realistic assumptions and environment. We understood a lot better how much it cost us to build this airplane. Ignoring these facts and still keeping everything as big as we had set it up and dreamed would be irresponsible.”

For Icon and Wieners, the tough decision to match the employee ranks to the reality of the market resulted in a layoff of 38 percent of the personnel, reducing the headcount to 400 from 650, both in Vacaville and Tijuana. “Accepting that reality check is allowing us to reset the base and find a path to profitability,” Wieners said. “It was very well thought through. We looked at the data very carefully.” Customers, investors, and even employees were supportive of the move, he said.

It was important to Wieners that Icon retain key management, manufacturing, engineering, and service talent and not just rest on the laurels of the A5. “It’s too early to talk about the details, but we're still pushing our innovative skills and keep innovating new stuff that we believe is going to be important for us in the future,” he said. Near-term, there is strong demand for an A5 with a more powerful engine than the current 100-hp Rotax 912 as well as more useful load. Because Icon didn’t use the full amount of the weight exemption, it has some margin to increase the A5’s maximum takeoff weight to add useful load, given more power. Longer-term, Icon is exploring new aircraft that fit its mission, but perhaps not focused so much on recreation. And with any new design, manufacturability will obviously be considered from early on.

In fact, Wieners believes that Icon is in a unique position, having learned a great deal about what it takes to build a composite airframe in high volume. Icon’s investors, some of which are in China, likewise have the same long-term view. “There is a big belief on their side in future flying worlds,” he said. "There's strong pride in the manufacturing environment and capability that we have set up, especially on the carbon fiber-carbon side.” The nascent urban air mobility market, which promises to fill the sky with untold numbers of electric-powered eVTOL aircraft or long-range lightweight commuter-style airplanes, could learn some lessons from Icon, he believes. “Those flying cars, call it what you want, but none of them have the support they would need on a manufacturing environment that would allow them to go anywhere close to volume production. This has bought us an advance towards whatever it is that is coming, because we went that rocky road and got bloody noses creating that manufacturing environment.”

It will be interesting to see what the designers and engineers at Icon come up with for next products, especially given that, unlike most other OEMS, the company is unshackled by the need to follow the path carved by the A5.

Most OEMS achieve a successful product then stick to iterations of that product’s fundamental design when developing new aircraft. This is the most efficient way to add new models, if the design performs well and is efficiently manufacturable. That’s why a Falcon looks like a Falcon, down to the design of the core structure, and a Gulfstream will likely always have a smooth slab of a wing unadorned by complicated leading-edge slats and multi-paned flaps. This strategy has served OEMs well: witness the thousands of jets spawned by the original Cessna Citation, the unalterable basic shape of all Learjets, and the multiple models spawned from Daher’s TBM and Pilatus’s PC-12 series.

But Icon is not so encumbered, according to Wieners. The A5 and improved versions likely will live on, but a new Icon, whatever form it takes, will certainly be more manufacturable and hopefully reach break-even profitability much faster, if he has his way. And this new version may itself birth an entirely new family built by an OEM that has learned its lessons the hard way but also extremely well.

“We know that we have an exhausting path in front of us, but me and the team, we like the challenge,” he concluded. “I'm excited to do that, to accept that reality check and turn this into something good. I think the product, the company, the brand has so many promising and strong elements that it's enough foundation to turn it into something good.”